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Pratima Joshi is using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to survey and map city slums, generating critical information to advocate for the provision of essential public services to slum inhabitants in Pune, India and surrounding urban areas.

This profile below was prepared when Pratima Joshi was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.


Pratima Joshi is using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to survey and map city slums, generating critical information to advocate for the provision of essential public services to slum inhabitants in Pune, India and surrounding urban areas.


Pratima is working for the recognition of slum dwellers as legitimate city residents with rights to basic public services. An architect, Pratima is using her expertise to encourage urban planners and officials to address the lack of attention paid to slums in city development plans. By mobilizing slum youth to collect data and using GIS technology, Pratima is systematically generating and analyzing essential information on slum demographics. With GIS, Pratima has created a spatially-organized slum database that is critical to effective urban planning and the development of public infrastructure servicing the slums. She is using this information to advocate for the poor and put pressure on public officials to for example, resettle slum communities living within flood-prone areas to safer locations. She is also facilitating the effective use of the data by local governments to negotiate budgets from the national government, coordinate city development plans, and design utilities that are truly beneficial to slum inhabitants. Importantly, Pratima is using concrete data to dissipate negative stereotypes of slum dwellers and create awareness about them as vibrant members of the community.  


About a third of India’s population lives in cities, and up to 40 percent live in slums. Despite their large numbers, slum dwellers are often ignored by urban planners and administrators. As a result, slums often lack even the most basic civic infrastructure, including housing, drainage, water delivery, sewage systems and electricity. This lack of amenities creates serious health and security hazards for the inhabitants.

Slums are not included in city planning due to a lack of recognition of slum dwellers as legitimate residents of cities. Slum inhabitants are considered transient and illegal, making financial investments less viable and discouraging political interest in slum improvement. Stereotypes of slum dwellers include: they are undeserving people who steal city land; live off taxpayers; are unemployed; and foster vices such as drugs, prostitution, and violence—providing officials with reasons for not investing government money on basic services.

The law concerning slums in Pune, where Pratima has done much of her work, is an example of some of the legal complications which prevent slum improvement. Pune, a growing industrial city in Maharashtra, continues to lack basic infrastructure and services for the poor, especially those in the slums spread across the city. Under the state’s Maharashtra Slum Areas Act (1971), a slum is loosely defined as a congested, unhygienic area or as buildings that are public hazards. Responsibility for services is delegated to the Pune Municipal Corporation which must declare a number of areas as slums using this definition. Undeclared slums, regardless of their conditions, are not considered eligible for basic service provision. Declared slums grow without their boundaries being updated, so there are no services in the newer sections, putting pressure on existing systems. A further complication is a state resolution recognizing slum dwellers that have been living in the city since before 1995 as legitimate city residents entitled to resettlement if evicted for development projects or for other reasons. The implications of legal residents living in an undeclared slum for the city’s provision of services to them are inextricably tied.  

Lack of knowledge about slum conditions and demographics leads to inequitable and inefficient urban planning as well as reduced accountability for decisions about the allocation of city resources. For example, the failure to carry through the above-mentioned Maharashtra resettlement resolution because municipal officials have no system of data collection to establish which houses are affected by development schemes and how many people are evicted. Either the development proceeds without provision for resettlement, or the project is blocked if local officials supported by the slum dwellers are sufficiently influential. City projects in slums have at times been woefully misdirected because of this knowledge gap.

One of the major reasons for inequitable service distribution is the current political system.  Government decisions are often based on political motives, connections and influence—particularly the allocation of scarce resources such as land. Local officials have access to funds to invest in services for their constituencies, but may only do so at the expense of other communities in exchange for votes. Water supply, for example, is often unevenly provided according to this political favoritism. However, access to water is not only a basic service, but essential. In some slums, people wake up at night to stand in long queues to collect water, and may become violent if their neighbors do not queue or take an extra vessel of water.


Pratima’s model, done primarily in Pune and Sangli, may be replicated in cities across India. It is based on the use of GIS technology to survey and map slums, generating much-needed information for local governments and legitimizing slum dwellers’ status as valid city residents in need of basic civic services.

Pratima launched Shelter Associates (SA) with two architect friends in 1993 with the purpose of introducing grassroots financial savings groups to empower women slum dwellers. When Rajendranagar, a slum in which they worked, was demolished, SA advocated for resettlement with a law protecting inhabitants who had been living there for 5 or more years. SA worked with the local government to find alternate land and trained women in the slum to design and to build their own homes. In 2000, spurred by the growing realization that a lack of information was a major hindrance to projects, Pratima began work on a slum database. The Pune municipal authorities asked SA for a comprehensive slum census, and her organization produced a detailed, technologically-advanced survey of Pune slum dwellers; the first in India to be processed and analyzed with GIS software. Pratima’s data showed that over 40 percent of the city’s population, more than 1 million people, live in slums—approximately 10 times more than previously thought.

Building on her experience, she created a comprehensive data-collection project; a database of information on slum communities. Pratima’s database synthesizes information for each slum from a socio-economic household census, settlement level surveys, and settlement mapping. Using GIS software, this detailed information can be used by local and state governments— replacing assumptions with precise figures and plans—to help them lobby the national government for corresponding fund allocations.

Pratima has developed a uniquely successful ground-level survey methodology. Integral to its success is the involvement of slum-dwellers who collect data on their own communities. SA works with a group it started, Baandhani, to train other slum residents to conduct house-to-house surveys. Teams made up of Baandhani members and others collect data in slums throughout the city of Pune, some in their own settlements, others continuing to work on teams in other areas. All surveyors are young, around 18 to 20 years old, and are especially enthusiastic when they can see on the computer all their data being connected to houses in the settlements—able to identify their homes on the map and click the mouse for information. A visual representation makes the data special and personal in a way that other surveys have not.

Pratima understands the essential nature of spatial information to SA’s surveys, as slum settlements are spatial entities with layouts, topography and specific locations. Slums are living parts of the city with homes, roads, shops, temples, water channels, etc. Each slum is connected by networks of city infrastructure to its surrounding area and to the city as a whole. GIS is a tool which joins spatial analysis with socioeconomic information, and is therefore ideal for urban planning. At the micro-level, infrastructure projects, from wastewater drainage to re-aligning houses for broader access ways to deciding on equitable locations for common services, can best be planned using a combination of spatial and socio-economic information. A snapshot of a GIS map of Pune shows that slum settlements, though only a small amount of urban space, are spread across the entire city. With this spatial data, Pratima has been able to argue effectively to city planners that it is more efficient to include slums in infrastructure networks than not. For example, where a sewage or water line is intended to supply a “regular” neighborhood it can also supply slum settlements located along the same route. Conversely, if water lines are extended to a slum settlement, they can also service surrounding areas. Pratima has shown that integrating slum development into Pune’s city development is the most reasonable investment for efficient municipal spending. Pratima’s census validates the existence of slum dwellers in the city by providing concrete information about their residence in and contribution to the city. Seeing a house on the virtual map of a slum, one may access information about the family, legitimatizing city residents in a way that is difficult for public officials to challenge. This information also proves that slum dwellers are important contributors to Pune’s vibrant economy—an important part of Pratima’s vision for change: the spread of a broader awareness of slum residents as visible, viable communities within the city. This is the first step in recognizing that poor women and men cannot be excluded from resources that other city residents have access. Pratima challenging deep-rooted assumptions and stereotypes, and relevant information and hard data is essential to success.

Pratima has also shown that if information about slum settlements is transparent and widely disseminated, public officials can be held accountable for their decisions about the allocation of resources. For example, a slum in Pune, Kamgar Putla, was severely damaged by one of the worst floods in 40 years. SA conducted a survey of affected houses, enabling the Pune municipality to draw a high flood line across the settlement and a resettlement plan. Meanwhile, another division of the municipality was constructing toilet blocks and a community center below the flood line. Pratima confronted a senior official in local government—who saw mapped for the first time—the implications of uncoordinated planning. Pratima is using the compiled data to advocate for changes in the Development Plan Map of Pune and has found several discrepancies on which budget allocations depend. In the city of Sangli, the mapping of 12 settlements has led to the scaling up of sanitation efforts, as SA showed the local government how a range of options could be extended to the poor. Four settlements have been extended individual toilets since 2006. Based on its huge success and a growing demand from communities, the local government decided to extend sanitation facilities in collaboration with SA to at least 1,000 families in 2007.

In 2003, Pratima used GIS to map and survey Khuldabad, a small municipality in Aurungabad. She presented a report analyzing this data to the Municipal Corporation and provided plans for better amenities in slums—working with SA to build a community-managed solid waste system in one of the slums as a model. Pratima also established a citizen group, comprised of academics, professionals and others to exert pressure on the local government for changes in city planning. She is now working with the national Ministry of Urban Planning, partnering with state administrators to work with local governments in 10 cities in Maharashtra, and integrating their development planning processes with information generated on their slums.


Born and raised in Chennai, Pratima studied architecture at the School of Architecture and Planning in Chennai. She met a group of upperclassmen and graduate students collaborating on a community housing project—they had been introduced to new ideas by a professor of Climatology, Michael Slingsby, Chief Technical Adviser to UNDP/UN-habitat. Deeply affected, Pratima visited some “economically-weaker” section sites in Chennai and analyzed the layout of a slum. During her third year she researched housing issues in poor rural areas in a small village near Chennai. In her final year, she developed a keen interest in the use of non-conventional energy in architecture and decided to pursue an apprenticeship with Dr. C.L. Gupta, a solar scientist in Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry. After 4 months, Pratima wrote a thesis on passive solar concepts in architecture.

At this time, Pratima decided to work on low cost housing and development issues. Drawn to a new course at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning in the U.K., “Building Design for Developing Countries”, Pratima won the Aga Khan scholarship to attend. It was here that she had her first exposure to development issues in architecture. Taught by eminent architects and planners such as John Turner and Pat Wakely, she eventually focused her passion to work on shelter needs for the urban poor.

After returning to India, Pratima started working with the Centre for Development Studies and Activities where she met Srinanda Sen and Thomas Kerr, both architects interested in development issues. They formed Shelter Associates, initially working under the guidance of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resources Center in Mumbai, developing their methods and insights as they went along. In 2005, the BBC featured Pratima as part of ‘India’s new pioneers’—a slum architect pushing boundaries in her field of work.

Pratima lives in Pune with her husband and two children.